During your semester abroad, you’ll be faced with many important decisions like choosing between writing that term paper and taking a weekend city break with friends, fighting the study abroad ‘15’ and actually learning something you can tell grandma about when you get home.
Among the things that you’ll place on the top of your list, cultural immersion should be one of them. Not only will it enhance your overall study abroad experience, but it will give you a personal appreciation for your home country as well.
As an American in particular, this is often very hard – trust me, I’ve been there.
We yanks are notorious for trying to ‘make America happen’ wherever we go. Deferring to other cultures is just not natural, which is why we’ll go to the nicest eatery in Spain or France and still order burgers, for example.
it’s just how we roll a lot of the time!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure everyone has their comforts no matter where they are from when they go overseas, but what if you made the active choice not to? Instead of trying to make your new locale over in your own image, lean into all that it has to offer and absorb your new surroundings, the culture, the entire package like a newly jetlagged sponge.
Here are three reasons cultural immersion will enhance your overall study abroad experience:
1. You’ll quickly gain perspective on your likes and dislikes
There’s nothing like perspective. Perspective and its cousin clarity help to shape our views and actions. Immersing yourself in a new culture will allow you to be able to clearly define what you love the most about your home country and also reflect on what you wish was done differently.
You will discover an appreciation for certain things your host country may do a bit better than your native land, but most importantly, this perspective will give you a new outlook on humanity. People from X country are no longer ‘the other’. It’s not a foreign land, it’s simply a part of the world that’s not home.
2. You’ll learn new transferable skills
In today’s increasingly global society, where competition is stiff, opportunities are scarce, and everyone is replaceable, the more skills you can showcase, the better. When most people hear the terms ‘new skills’ and ‘study abroad’ in the same sentence, they automatically think of learning a new language.
This is true in many cases. Whether it’s a built-in component of your course or you’re just interested in diving deep in the local lingo, mastering a new language during your semester can be very rewarding.
And yes, while there are times where people who can tell you’re not a local will just speak to you in default English (do not let this stop you – answer them back in “X” language anyway!), it IS a skill you can talk up at that internship interview next summer.
For many years after I studied in Italy, I listed ‘Conversational Italian’ as a language I could speak. At the time, it was true – fast forward to today and I only remember ‘Ciao’, ‘Bella’, and ‘Grazie Millie’, you know the essentials.
Remember though, new skill-building goes far beyond the spoken word. Is there something unique that most students learn in your host country that you’d also like to learn? What about a local cultural phenomenon you can capitalize on and become an expert in?
When I was studying in London the first time, one of the guys in my program did volunteer work with a local “Futbol” team and by the end of the semester, could call the games like a pro. The options for developing new skills are endless, so turn them into your favor.
3. You’ll expand your international network
This is a pretty big one. Creating a global network is essential, again just considering the fact that we no longer operate as isolated nations and industries. While we are fortunate to have LinkedIn to do much of the leg work for us functionally, you still need to make those connections and build on them.
Consider your network as a pool of future opportunities and options, be them professional or personal. Networks are not only useful for future professional advancements but the more people you meet, the more potential allies you’ll have to call upon for all types of life challenges. In the same way, you should never ‘burn bridges’, you should never block bridges from forming either.
As someone who has been on both the resist to immersion and pro-immersion sides during my study abroad experiences, I can tell you for certain that ‘pro’ is better.
Once I got over the initial culture shock and realized that appreciating my ‘temporary home’ country for what it was instead of fearing it for what it was not, I found comfort in knowing that those differences would only enhance me and help me grow.
Perfect choice – made.
How will you immerse yourself in local culture during your semester abroad? Leave a comment below!
Known as The Study Abroad Specialist, Kimber Grayson is a serial-study abroader turned International Education coach and expert. Since 2014, she has helped 100+ students navigate their semester away journey from the coastal areas of Spain to China and every place in between. In 2018, she launched The LiveStudyLearn™ Abroad Association, a one-of-a-kind online membership platform for study abroad students worldwide.
She holds two Master's degrees from two well-respected London-based universities and has experience working in the US, UK & and Italy.
In her spare time (what's that again?), she enjoys leisure travel city breaks, any snow-based activity, skeet shooting, and attempting to learn new languages.